She-Hulk vs. Toxic Fandom

*Contains spoilers for the show She-Hulk

Recently we reflected on the show that currently holds the highest Rotten Tomatoes score of all Marvel television series, Ms. Marvel. The most recent Marvel show, She-Hulk, has received the opposite viewer reaction, as it currently holds the lowest audience rating of all MCU Phase 4 shows (33%). The show centers around a lawyer, Jennifer Walters, who gains powers from her cousin (the original Hulk), Bruce Banner. These powers make her the mighty She-Hulk. The entire season is about Walters trying to balance her new abilities, a career as superhero lawyer, and a normal life.

As its Rotten Tomato audience rating shows, She-Hulk is very divisive among audiences for various reasons, such as Jen’s immediate “Mary Sue” mastery of her powers over the experienced Hulk and She-Hulk twerking with musician Megan Thee Stallion. The most controversial episode of all is the finale, an overtly-meta reflection of the superhero genre, in which Jen is angered by the episode’s writing, escapes from her show into the Disney+ interface, and confronts the She-Hulk writers. As shocking as this is, the greatest controversy is probably the finale’s reveal of the show’s true villains. While the show features various villainous characters, none compare to the heinous evildoers who seek to utterly destroy She-Hulk: toxic fanboys.

Toxic Fandom
Toxic fandom is not unique to the superhero genre. Fans can be very passionate about their favorite bands, sports teams, movies, etc., showing great love and support when they are pleased with a product. But this passion can easily turn ugly when fans feel the object of their fandom is being mistreated. She-Hulk addresses this directly by making the main villains of the show a collection of angry anti-She-Hulk fanboys, even highlighting real-world social media criticisms in the show. On one hand, this makes sense for the series, as Jen frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience about the events of an episode. However, in addressing alleged toxic fandom, Marvel is also vilifying members of its own fanbase who have fueled the MCU’s massive success. One wonders, will this strategy actually lead fans to reflect upon and reform their bad behavior or will it simply increase their anger and validate their criticisms of the current state of their once-beloved MCU?

Toxic fandom is just one example of how our culture has lost the ability to disagree charitably and show true tolerance for people with different beliefs and opinions. Much of this is due to the ease at which we can share our negative feelings and have them affirmed by like-minded individuals anonymously on the internet. Certainly, we all need to reflect on the manner in which we conduct ourselves in person and online, learning to share opinions and criticisms respectfully. Our culture must also remember that not all criticism is hate or toxicity. We need to listen to others’ honest feedback so that we can correct mistakes or improve; this is especially true for Christians.

Receiving (and Giving) Criticism Like Jesus
Many Christians defend their online bad behavior by referring to Jesus flipping tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12), as well as to his strong criticisms of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, in which he harshly calls them out for their spiritual blindness and blatant hypocrisy. But while Jesus did have moments of righteous anger, it stemmed from a disposition of gentleness and humility of heart (Matthew 11:29) as he offered salvation to all (John 12:47). He knew when to offer strong rebukes and when to present tender corrections. Jesus confronted the self-righteous and he also lifted up the marginalized. However, Jesus also endured mockery and ridicule during his life, and was unjustly executed like a criminal. Thus, Jesus is a model of how to offer appropriate criticism as well as how to face undeserved criticism.

Doesn’t the Bible tell us not to criticize each other? Jesus himself says “Do not judge” in Matthew 7:1. However, if we read the rest of the passage, we learn that Jesus’s point is not to refrain from judging one another, but to warn us about judging hypocritically. We must deal with our own sin before we can help others with theirs. The Bible is full of people who offer many criticisms of their current culture. This was the role of the prophets in the Old Testament, to expose the sin of the people, calling them to repentance—even at the risk of the prophet’s own life. Christians are also called to lovingly judge their brothers and sisters within the church. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted,” meaning that Christians must offer warnings and rebukes to each other that may hurt to hear, but are ultimately necessary for our spiritual growth. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for overlooking a grievous sexual sin of one of their church members, explicitly commanding them to “judge those inside” the church (5:12). The Bible also tells us that Scripture “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Why is this important? “So that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Speaking the Truth in Love
Over the years, the MCU has featured a full array of villains, each with different powers and motivations. But with She-Hulk, Marvel has introduced a new type of villain unlike any before: toxic fans. This has understandably received mixed reactions, with some praising Marvel for blatantly calling out bad online behavior and others questioning how Marvel could literally vilify or even caricature segments of their own fan base. However one feels about this, it does highlight the fact that there is an abundance of negativity on the internet. As Christians, we should oppose all harassment and harmful behavior. Yet we must also recognize that some criticism is warranted, even necessary. After all, Marvel is using She-Hulk to criticize behavior it deems inappropriate: toxic fandom. Thus, to condemn all criticism would be hypocritical.

The real issue, then, is how to offer helpful criticism. For the Christian, the answer is through the model of Jesus. The Bible repeatedly tells us that he was full of grace and truth. Jesus always spoke the truth, even when it was unpleasant or unwanted—yet he always did so with grace. The goal of every Christian is to be like Christ, and the way to do this is by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

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Timothy Fox

Timothy Fox has a passion to equip the church to engage the culture. He is a part-time math teacher, full-time husband and father. He has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University as well as an M.A. in Adolescent Education of Mathematics and a B.S. in Computer Science, both from Stony Brook University. Tim lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and children. He also blogs at freethinkingministries.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @TimothyDFox.